Preliminary observations on using the Kindle Fire to read comics

The following is a record of some of my preliminary observations on using my new Kindle Fire to read comics. I’ve been reading comics for about 23 years, and the vast majority of the comics I read are comic books, i.e. “pamphlets” or “singles”. I have well over 10,000 comic books and I feel an intense emotional attachment to this form. I believe the comic book is a perfect way of delivering a short but concentrated narrative, and I also love the sight, smell and feel of it. And it’s low-cost; probably at least a third of my comics were purchased from cheap boxes for less than a dollar each. I don’t like trade paperbacks or graphic novels nearly as much, partly because of cost, partly because they seem less authentic to me. Therefore, I also resisted buying a Kindle or any other e-reader device until just recently, when I decided to do so for my research. I’m working on a book project about the materiality of comics in the post-digital age, and a large part of that project is going to involve describing the phenomenology of reading comics on digital devices.

For this reason, it’s important that I record my observations on reading comics with my Kindle Fire, before I forget. The first comics I’m reading on my Kindle are Alex Robinson’s Box Office Poison and the third volume of Manu Larcenet’s Le combat ordinare (translated into English — badly translated, I would argue — as Ordinary Victories). I’m reading the former using the Comixology app, and the latter using the bdBuzz app; these are both applications that are designed for the purpose of reading comics, but they work very differently. The former is mostly devoted to American comics, and the latter is exclusively for French comics and English-language translations thereof.

My observations are as follows:

I. OBSERVATIONS RELATING TO GUIDED VIEW

  • The biggest difference between the Kindle Fire and print comics is the Comixology application’s Guided View, which zooms in on a single panel at a time. This is obviously a big big deal because a major part of the comics reading experience is the ability to view multiple panels together at once. This makes it possible to see connections between non-adjacent panels — Groensteen calls this type of reading arthrology. By contrast, when read one panel at a time instead of one page at a time, a comic becomes a sort of very slow movie.
  • Luckily, the Kindle Fire has an option to show the entire page before and after moving to the next page. This makes it possible to see the page as a cohesive unit as well as reading one panel at a time.
  • There must be some person somewhere who goes through each page of each comic submitted to Comixology and decides how to format it for Guided View. I wonder who that person is and how he or she makes those decisions. Presumably this is not the artist’s job. In November 2010, Comixology announced that they were going to make their Guided View authoring tools available to the public, but nothing seems to have come of that.
  • Guided View works very well with rectilinear panels, i.e. squares or rectangles. It works best of all with rectangular panels, which have the same shape as the Kindle Fire screen. Box Office Poison is an ideal comic to read with Guided View because the vast majority of its panels are vertically formatted rectangles. Robinson uses the same 4×2 panel grid that Dave Sim used in Cerebus. (Robinson admits in this interview that Sim was his biggest influence, and this is really obvious in BoP.)
  • Guided View works less well with panels that are not rectangular in shape, or pages that aren’t broken down into distinct panels. On many occasions in BoP, Robinson uses full-page compositions without clear panel borders, and these pages are broken up into Guided View “panels” on a rather arbitrary basis. (Unfortunately I don’t know the proper term for the units into which Guided View divides pages.) When I go through them in Guided View, I miss a lot of information. I imagine that Guided View would probably be horrible for something like shojo manga.
  • Clearly, Guided View also forces the reader to read each page in a particular order, and doesn’t allow the reader to follow any other pattern. This would make it highly inappropriate for comics where the reading order is left up to the reader, such as Jason Shiga’s Meanwhile or, less obviously, the Möbius strip page from Promethea.
  • By contrast, bdBuzz does not have any kind of guided view format at all. It only allows the reader to scroll down on the page and zoom in. bdBuzz does not seem to allow the reader to zoom out, meaning that the entire page can’t be viewed as a unit. I would imagine that this is less of a problem for French comics, where pages tend to be laid out as a series of horizontal tiers.

II. OBSERVATIONS RELATING TO MY PERSONAL EMOTIONAL ATTACHMENT TO PARTICULAR FORMATS

  • No, I couldn’t think of a shorter title for this section.
  • I don’t think Comixology is ever going to replace comic books for me, at least not in the immediate future. I just went to the comic book store yesterday to buy new comics, even though all those comics were available on Comixology for the same price. For me, going to the comic book store is an event. It’s something I’ve looked forward to since I was seven or eight years old. Downloading comics on Comixology is just not the same sort of experience.
  • However, I like my local comic book store and I enjoy going there. If I was living in a place where there was no comic book store, or where the local store was no good, then I’d have to choose between Comixology and mail-ordering comics, and that would be a much harder decision.
  • I do think that reading comics on Comixology or bdBuzz may be preferable to buying the same comic books in trade paperback or graphic novel format. I’ve never really liked that format. To me it just doesn’t seem authentic. If I have a particular story in trade paperback form, I still feel the compulsion to go and get the individual issues (this is, of course, my completist collector mentality showing). To that extent, I don’t see much difference between, say, buying the latest Chew graphic novel and reading it on the Kindle.
  • For original French-language BD, which are impossible to find in America, bdBuzz is a godsend. It allows me to read comics I couldn’t access any other way. I suppose I could download these comics and read them on my laptop, but I hate reading on a laptop.

III. OTHER OBSERVATIONS

  • Comixology does not seem to offer the option to jump to a specific page. It does have a feature allowing you to browse pages in order, but this is impractical for Box Office Poison, which is over 600 pages long. To get from, say, page 250 to page 2, I’d have to browse through all the pages in between. This causes some obvious difficulties. For example, just now I realized I’d forgotten the name of one of the major characters. If I’d been reading BoP as a book, I could have just flipped to the first page where she appears, but since I was reading it on the Kindle, I had to wait for the next time her name was mentioned. 
  • One of the obvious advantages of the Kindle is portability, and this is a very important advantage in the case of Box Office Poison. I think one reason I never read this book before is because the paperback volume is so big and heavy.
  • For the same reason, the Kindle would be a great way to finally read Cerebus, but unfortunately Cerebus has not been made available on Comixology yet.
  • One reason why I chose to read Box Office Poison is because I already have two issues of the original comic book series, and I haven’t gotten around to reading them yet. I look forward to comparing the experience of reading those comic books with the experience of reading the same material on the Kindle. The comic books contain some content — e.g. letters pages — which is not reproduced in either the trade paperback or the Kindle version.
  • Similarly, I already have a copy of the English version of Ordinary Victories, but I couldn’t finish reading it because I thought the translation was very poor. That’s why I decided to make it the first French comic I read on the Kindle. However, my ability to read French is not great, and when I read Le combat ordinaire on the Kindle, I sometimes have to follow along in my English-language paper copy. This is a very strange and cumbersome experience. 

And thus my observations end. I would enjoy receiving feedback on any of this. I would particularly be interested in hearing any specific information about how Guided View works.

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2 thoughts on “Preliminary observations on using the Kindle Fire to read comics

  1. Agree with you on the Larcenet title translation. I would have gone with something like “The Everyday Battle”. I haven’t tried comics on my Kindle yet but you’ve given me some interesting points to consider.

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